Author Says God Desires Our Love and Companionship
Fifteen hundred years ago, the emperor of Rome built a tomb for his beloved sister. The small building was designed in the shape of a cross with a vaulted ceiling covered with mosaics of swirling stars in an indigo sky. The focal point of the mosaic ceiling was a depiction of Jesus the Good Shepherd surrounded by sheep in an emerald paradise.
The mausoleum of Galla Placidia still stands in Ravenna, Italy, and has been called by scholars “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments” and one of the “most artistically perfect.” Visitors who have admired its mosaics in travel books and on postcards will be disappointed when they enter the mausoleum. The structure has only tiny windows, and what light does enter is usually blocked by a mass of tourists. The “most artistically perfect” mosaic monument, the inspiring vision of the Good Shepherd in a starry paradise, is hidden behind a veil of darkness.
The impatient who leave the chapel will miss a stunning unveiling. With no advance notice, spotlights near the ceiling are turned on when a tourist finally manages to drop a coin into the small metal box along the wall. The lights illuminate the iridescent tiles of the mosaic but only for a few seconds. One visitor described the experience: “The lights come on. For a brief moment, the briefest of moments—the eye doesn’t have time to take it all in, the eye casts about—the dull, hot darkness overhead becomes a starry sky, a dark-blue cupola with huge, shimmering stars that seem startlingly close. ‘Ahhhhh!’ comes the sound from below, and then the light goes out, and again there’s darkness, darker even than before.”
The bright burst of illumination is repeated over and over again, divided by darkness of unpredictable length. Each time the lights come on, the visitors are given another glimpse of the world behind the shadows, and their eyes capture another element previously unseen—deer drinking from springs, garlands of fruit and leaves, Jesus gently reaching out to His sheep that look lovingly at their Shepherd. After seeing the mosaic, one visitor wrote: “I have never seen anything so sublime in my life! Makes you want to cry!”
Like the tourists in Ravenna, many come into Christian faith with great expectations. They have heard stories of jubilation and salvation, of the power to overcome this world and experience the divine in inexpressible ways. Once inside the ancient halls of Christianity, many are disappointed. Where is the light, the illumination? Our hearts seek God and the goodness, beauty, justice and peace we’ve been told He provides; but He often remains hidden behind the shadow cast by an evil world.
My concern is that we are inoculating an entire generation to the Christian faith. Many come with a holy desire to know God, to experience His presence in their lives, to be cared for as sheep entrusted to a meek and gentle shepherd; but this is not what they see or experience. In fact, they may leave the church without ever seeing a beautiful and enthralling vision of life with God. The lights are never turned on to reveal the beauty that is present just behind the shadows. Instead, they are offered a substitute form of Christianity, one that cannot break through the shadows and never really satisfies the deepest longings of their souls.
When their experience of faith leaves them disappointed, they may falsely conclude Christianity has failed. In reality, to quote G.K. Chesterton, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Perhaps it might be more accurately said of our time that Christianity has not been presented and therefore has been left untried. The result is a generation disaffected and inoculated to the true Christian message.
There are moments, unexpected and undeserved, when a coin is dropped and our vision is transformed by a bright burst of light. It may only be a brief glimpse, but in those moments we see the world behind the shadows; we see an entirely different way of relating to God, and we long for more.
Unfortunately a great many people have settled for a darker existence, one under a shadow in which they relate to God in a way that leaves them discontent. Consider the following examples of four people I encountered. All identified themselves as Christians; most had significant church backgrounds, but they each related to God in a different way.
• I had not met Joel before he came to my office for what he called “spiritual advice.” A middle-aged man with some success at business, Joel described himself as a Christian with a weakness for alcohol, women and gambling—the latter being the reason for his visit. A bad run of bets was now jeopardizing his business.
“I’m sorry for your troubles, Joel,” I said, “but I’m not sure why you’ve come to see me.”
“I don’t go to church,” Joel said, “but I know what’s right and wrong. I’m concerned that God isn’t going to bless my business because of what I’ve done. I want to make things right with Him. I can’t afford to have my partners and God against me.”
• Mark was a very well-read man. He devoured every business leadership book he could find, but he wasn’t a business leader. Mark was a pastor. We met at a ministry conference and shared lunch together.
“The problem with most pastors,” Mark began, “is that they think they’re immune to market forces. They don’t understand the basic principles on which every organization rises or falls. They just don’t teach that stuff in seminary.
“I can’t stand all the spiritualizing that goes on at these ministry conferences. We’re just coming up with excuses for being bad leaders—for not doing more. Do you think the managers of Wal-Mart sit around and contemplate? Why do people expect us to sit around and pray all the time? I’m not going to let my church atrophy like so many others.”
• Rebecca was a senior at a respected Christian college. With graduation just months away, she was wrestling with what she would do next.
“I’ve always dreamed of going to medical school,” she said, “and I probably have the grades to get in, but I’m just not sure I should do it.”
“Why not?” I asked. “What’s holding you back?”
“I’m not sure that’s what God wants me to do. I mean, does the world really need another cardiologist? I want my life to matter more than that. I want to do something really significant.”
“Like be a missionary,” she said. “Maybe in order to serve Him, God wants me to sacrifice my dream of becoming a doctor. I just don’t want to reach the end and feel that I missed out on a more significant life.”
• “I don’t understand what I did wrong,” Karen said through her tears. “I tried my best to raise him according to the Bible.”
Karen’s teenage son was struggling with severe depression and coping in unhealthy ways. His drug use only exacerbated the problem and led to more destructive behaviors.
“It isn’t supposed to happen this way,” she said, with equal doses of anger and pain. “We always have honored God in our home. We have always done what’s right. We raised our kids God’s way—on biblical principles. There’s even a verse from Proverbs framed and hanging in our house: ‘Raise up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ Why is God punishing us?”
Joel, Mark, Rebecca and Karen represent the four ways most people relate to God. Like the tourists trapped in the dark and smelly confines of the Galla Placidia, most people ultimately are unsatisfied with these four approaches.
Life from God
Joel, the fast-living businessman, sought to use God to bless his business. He embodies the posture of life from God. People in this category want God’s blessings and gifts, but they are not particularly interested in God Himself.
Life over God
Mark, the savvy pastor with a focus on organizational principles rather than on prayer, didn’t have much space in his life or ministry for God. This is the life over God posture. The mystery and wonder of the world is lost as God is abandoned in favor of proven formulas and controllable outcomes.
Life Under God
Karen, the distraught mother who tried to raise her son by the book, was upset when God did not uphold His end of the deal. The life under God posture sees God in simple cause-and-effect terms—we obey His commands and He blesses our lives, our families, our nation. Our primary role is to determine what He approves (or disapproves) and work vigilantly to remain within those boundaries.
Life for God
Rebecca, the graduating senior dreaming of medical school, primarily was concerned with how to best serve God. This most celebrated of religious postures is life for God. The most significant life, it believes, is the one expended accomplishing great things in God’s service.
A Better Approach
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” This is how the apostle John described the beginning of all things. Before time or space, the pre-existent God lived in eternal communion with Himself. John introduced Jesus Christ, the Word, as God, but also as existing before creation in unity with God.
The opening verse of John’s gospel is one of many texts in Scripture that supports the Christian belief in a trinitarian God. The Trinity, the notion of one eternal God existing in three persons (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit) is a foundational and admittedly mind-twisting, doctrine of Christianity. It is also where life with God finds its origin. The Trinity reveals that we worship a relational and personal God. Neither is He an impersonal force as some Eastern philosophies teach, nor is He a disinterested Creator as Enlightenment deism has advocated. The Christian God is a personal deity who exists in eternal community with Himself.
God’s relational nature is further revealed in His creative work. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'” God established a garden in Eden where He placed the man and woman and where He walked with them. God welcomed humanity into the eternal communion He had known since before time. We were created in His image so we might live in relationship with Him.
Eden was designed to be a collaborative environment where Creator and creatures worked together for a common goal. Eden is best understood as a base camp from which the man and woman were to extend God’s garden to encompass the entire earth. They were intended to partner with God as His representatives and agents on the earth. The man and woman were instructed to rule over the earth on God’s behalf and cultivate the order, beauty and abundance of Eden in every corner of creation. This is the basis for the first command in the Bible: “fill the earth and subdue it.”
God’s original intent for humanity to live and rule with Him on the earth is also on display in the closing chapters of the Bible. The revelation given to the apostle John shows history’s culmination: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.'”
As in the garden in Genesis, the emphasis of John’s revelation is that God and humanity will dwell together in relational unity. This is why God created us, and it is the end to which all of history is marching. Just as the first man and woman were intended to rule with God over His creation, that same purpose is reaffirmed in the Book of Revelation: “By Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth…They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
If the Bible were the script for a play, the opening scene and the final act of this drama would focus on God’s desire to live and rule with His people. This impulse carries the drama from beginning to end, yet the call to a life of intimate communion with God is largely absent today. It’s as if we entered the theater late and left before the final curtain. As a result, we have a skewed understanding of the story. We’ve extracted one portion or another of the narrative and assumed it was representative of the entire story. This explains (in part) how we have come to exchange life with God in favor of one over, under, from or for Him. Our failure to embrace the whole story of Scripture doesn’t entirely account for the error.